Taking your choice of machine first, here are some things you need to think about.
Forget a massive machine with huge power. A small- to mid-capacity bike will be much more economical, have all the urge you need to make progress, be light, slim and easy to drive through traffic (and to turn and park), and should have a nice, smooth power delivery to make tight urban riding a cinch.
You want an upright riding position, which will allow you a clear view ahead and peripherally, make it easy to turn your head, and should give you the best view via the mirrors. Until you take a bike for test ride you won’t know whether the mirrors are brilliant or useless. And what suits one rider may not suit another. If the mirrors are blurred by vibration or only give a good view of your elbows, avoid.
Ideally you want a bike with light, smooth clutch and throttle action. ABS is a big plus. Judging grip on well-used city streets is tough.
Adjustable peg and seat height is great. As is a comfy seat with a relaxed reach to the pegs so you don’t have to fold your knees up.
A centre stand is a real boon. You’ll be doing a lot of miles in all weathers so your chain will need cleaning, lubing and adjusting regularly. Unless, that is, you choose a belt or shaft drive. Neither requires the frequent attention of a chain.
If your commute is strictly urban, there’s a good case for choosing a scooter. There are, however, a lot of cheap and sometimes nasty items out there. Best go with something from the big Japanese manufacturers or Italy’s Piaggio group. There’s a good reason scooters are popular for commuting, as they offer protection for a lot of your body. So a fairing is good.
If you do a lot of distance out of town consider a maxi-scooter like Suzuki’s Burgman, Yamaha’s T-Max, BMW’s C600/650 range or similar. There are plenty of great mid-capacity motorcycles to choose from. Suzuki’s faired GSX650F and Yamaha’s FZ6-R, for example, are ideal all rounders that meet the above criteria (though they’re chain drive). Ditto, Kawasaki’s 250, 300 and 650 Ninjas. Honda’s CB500 range comes in adventure, sports and naked guises, plus there’s the hugely economical NC700S and X. If you are prepared to sacrifice weather protection for great fuel economy and a lot of fun, try KTM’s smaller (125, 200 or 390) Duke range. Small capacity trail bikes are another option, offered by most major manufacturers, but they too lack weather protection.
The prime answer for clothing is a good quality, breathable, two-piece Cordura (or similar) riding suit. Waterproof, with built-in CE armour and good abrasion resistance, it meets the two main requirements of crash and weather protection. It will be comfortable and you can often wear your work clothes underneath. Buy a sufficiently large size that you can add layers in winter.
If you want to add some summer’s day riding kit, like jeans and jacket, make sure the jeans are purpose-built for riding with full kevlar inserts, CE knee armour and preferably hip armour too. Jackets should be abrasion resistant and come with CE-standard shoulder, elbow and back protectors.
A face full of stinging rain won’t make your commute any more fun. And it gets even less enjoyable if you go down face-first in a crash. So choose a full-face helmet every time, even if you don’t like the feeling initially. There are also flip-front options. Choose a helmet that meets approved safety standards, and then it’s all about fit. With frequent use, your helmet liner is going to degrade quicker, so replace your lid at least every three to five years.
Look for a quality pair of ‘365’ riding gloves with a breathable membrane. These offer the best chance of seeing you through all four seasons. Otherwise a pair of textile, waterproof winter gloves will be of most use.
Like your gloves and suit, you’ll want boots that offer full protection from the weather as well as in a crash. Many boots that claim to be waterproof aren’t, or only offer some resistance before you feel the dreaded wet toes. Ask your dealer’s advice on the best choices. Look for full race or touring boot style protection: heel and toe cups, shin armour, ankle armour, twist-resistance, sole shank, the works.
If you are going to ditch the heavy boots for the summer run into work, make sure you still wear motorcycle-specific boots. Most of the top manufacturers make a casual style boot that will offer at least some protection. Look for toe and heel cups, a sole shank and some protection for the ankles, as well as secure fit and fastening.
Heated riding kit
Once you’ve used it, you’ll never go back. A vest and gloves are usually enough. Next best option is thermal base layers, including balaclava, glove inserts and socks. In winter, always wear a throat muff.
Visor steaming in bad weather? De-fogging agents don’t work that well and don’t last. Get a pinlock visor insert (it’s like double glazing for your visor) or try a breath guard.
Wear polarised sunnies under a clear, clean, scratch-free visor. Keep a hanger at work and always hang your riding kit up, don’t leave it scrunched up under a desk. Do not dry out gloves, boots or suits by direct heat. Scrunch up newspaper and put it into damp boot and gloves to aid drying.
A few well-chosen ones can make the difference between misery and comfort. Cold, wet hands on the winter commute can put anyone off. Hand guards help and so do heated grips. Put both together and it’s luxury. You can get heated seats, too. At the very least, consider a gel seat cover or replacement: you’ll be spending a lot of time in the saddle. A double-bubble or taller screen can keep more of the elements off, just watch for the effect on turbulence. Given the miles you’ll cover on greasy streets, you might also want to consider crash bobbins, engine covers or crash bars.
Whether it’s a briefcase, laptop, your packed lunch or a bunch of files, you’re bound to want to carry stuff. Try to avoid using a rucksack: they’re often uncomfortable, tiring and restrictive and can be dangerous in a crash. A securely mounted top box is a good option. Panniers can be too, but they can cause a few nerves in tight traffic. Just remember, almost any luggage will leak in torrential rain, so look for stuff with good seals and preferably a sealable waterproof liner. Otherwise, put everything in a waterproof bag as a precaution.